After several months of violence on the streets and political upheavals in the Knesset that have been no laughing matter, Los Angeles- based comedian Avi Liberman will once again be bringing top comics to Israel this week to help heal Israel with laughter.
As usual, proceeds from the shows will go to the Koby Mandell Foundation, which runs therapeutic healing programs for those who have lost a mother, father, sister, brother, or child to terrorism.
And as usual, there will be shows in Modi’in (Sunday), Beit Shemesh (Monday), Tel Aviv (Wednesday), Jerusalem (two shows on Thursday), Gush Etzion (Saturday night), and Herzliya/ Ra’anana (next Sunday).
But there is nothing usual about the act or the life story of “Sarge,” one of the comedians who will be gracing the stage on the tour.
Born Steven Charles Pickman in Miami Beach, Florida, he is considered one of the most hilarious, high energy, triple threat entertainers working anywhere in the US today. He has also been a piano virtuoso since the age of five, and a singer who has opened for Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin and The Beach Boys.
He recently penned a best selling autobiographical memoir, I’m Still Standing Up, which poignantly chronicles his triumph over race, adoption, obesity, divorce, addiction and his obsessive-compulsive Jewish mother.
Sarge’s biological mother was an Orthodox Jew and a graduate student at Northwestern University, one of America’s most prestigious colleges, when she got pregnant with an African-American man. His mother agreed to have another Orthodox family adopt him, but before she gave birth, she did not reveal the father’s identity or his race to the family, which was shocked.
“They said you might have left him in too long, because he’s a little well done,” Sarge joked in a phone interview from New York. “People have joked that she didn’t know who she was shtupping, because it was through a sheet.
But the truth is she didn’t tell anyone because she didn’t think anyone would adopt me.”
Sarge, now 54, is grateful for his birth mother’s secrecy, because instead of going to an orphanage in the early 1960s as a mixed race child who might have never been adopted, he ended up going to the wealthy New York community Great Neck.
“It was beshert all the way around,” he said. “I am glad she carried out the pregnancy.”
Sarge has not always had an easy life since then. He was homeless for a period of time.
But he has been clean and sober for 25 years, since December 1990. The difficult time in his life led Sarge to a career as a therapist working in addiction treatment centers.
He found humor to be transferable to people there. He was invited to do shows, and when administrators saw that there was therapeutic value, they invited him to do more. Sometimes they pay him, and sometimes they don’t. Either way, he sees it as very important.
“People who are depressed and sad really need humor, which is the beginning of self-improvement,” he said.
While he is in Israel, Sarge will be doing a comic therapy session at the RETORNO rehabilitation center. He has done similar sessions in other countries while on tour.
“I am happy to do that wherever I go,” he said. “I don’t need a lot of sleep so my days can be spent doing service, and my shows are a kind of service. I live a life of service. It’s who I am. It’s Tikkun Olam. Wherever you go, it’s your job to make the world a better place.”
Despite being raised as a Jew in New York, Sarge has never been to Israel until now.
“I grew up in New York and live in Florida, where there are enough Jews already,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, Brooklyn is Israel. I travel a lot for a living so that is when I do my traveling. I don’t usually travel for pleasure.”
Sarge is popular on the Jewish Federation circuit in the US as well as many Jewish causes. He wanted to go on the Comedy for Koby tour because of the cause, and he was undaunted by the security situation in recent months.
“I lived in New York, and Harlem is right there,” he said. “When you live in New York, everyone wants you dead, because you’re in people’s way when your driving, going down the steps to a subway, in line for a hot dog. It’s similar I think.”
Liberman said he had Sarge on his radar for a while to do the tour, calling him “a powerful act with a story that’s nuts.”
Comedian Ryan Hamilton was scheduled by Liberman a long time ago. He called him a huge mensch, and the perfect complement to any show.
Hamilton was named one of Rolling Stone’s “Five Comics to Watch.” He has appeared on Conan O’Brien, NBC’s Last Comic Standing, Comics Unleashed, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and The Late Late Show.
With an extensive touring schedule, he often finds himself far from his Idaho roots and currently makes his home in New York City. Much of his trademark humor comes from that unique contrast.
He’s become known among industry insiders as the fastest rising star, racking up local and national comedy competition wins and festival appearances.
He most recently won the Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Nebraska, which honors the roots of Johnny Carson. He has also won the National MVP award for The Comedy Leagues competition at the Just For Laughs Montreal Comedy Festival.
Hamilton said in a phone interview that he has never been to Israel and has wanted to come for a long time.
“A lot of my friends have done the tour,” he said. “I am looking forward to seeing Jerusalem, experiencing a new place. I have never been to the Middle East. I have spent a substantial amount of time in Idaho.”
In his routine, Hamilton talks about what is happening in his life and tells stories that appeal to a wide demographic.
He said is looking forward to working with comedian Ty Barnett, the final comic on the tour.
Barnett is from Chicago and lives in Seattle. He also has never been to Israel. He has however performed in smoke-filled, unairconditioned rooms in Dubai.
“Anyone who I told I was coming said they were so jealous,” he said in a phone interview. “I know they have some issues over there. But laughter and music are the two most universal things. Everyone likes to laugh and Evonne likes music. I am looking forward to bring some laughter to the area.”
Asked what the focus of his routine would be, he said: “I am going to focus on not offending anybody, enjoying myself and making sure people get a good idea of what Ty Barnett is about.”
Barnett said he likes being around a lot of different cultures, because it helps him learn. He said he has been researching Israel before coming.
“I have been learning pop culture references,” he said. “Everyone has reassured me about the safety. There are also people walking around with guns in certain parts of Chicago, but they’re not military. I know I’m not performing for a bunch of refugees in a battle zone.”
Liberman said he bumped into Ty in Los Angeles at the Improv club and a light bulb went off to have him come on the tour. He said he was glad the timing worked out for him.
He said he was excited about having all first-timers and “very, very different comics.”
Liberman said it would be nice if his namesake, the new minister of defense, would walk on stage if they introduced him. But the goal of the tour is to get away from politics.
For tickets and more info visit www.comedyforkoby.